Facts About the Jamestown Colony

In 1607, Jamestown became the first settlement of the British empire in North America. Its location had been chosen due to it being easily defensible as it was surrounded on three sides by water, the water was deep enough for their ships, and the land was not inhabited by Native Americans. The pilgrims had a rocky beginning with their first winter. In fact, it took a number of years before the colony became profitable for England with the introduction of tobacco by John Rolfe. In 1624, Jamestown was made a royal colony.

To make the gold the Virginia Company and King James expected, the settlers tried many enterprises, including silk production and glassmaking. All met with little success until 1613, when colonists John Rolfe developed a sweeter, less harsh-tasting strain of tobacco that became wildly popular in Europe. At last, the colony was turning a profit. Tobacco was used as money in Jamestown and used to pay salaries. While tobacco proved to be the cash crop that helped Jamestown survive as long as it did, most of the land need to grow it was stolen from the native Powhatan Indians and growing it in saleable quantities depended on the forced labor of enslaved Africans.

Updated by Robert Longley

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Originally Founded for Monetary Reasons

Virginia, 1606, Jamestown Described By Captain John
Virginia, 1606, Jamestown as described by Captain John. Historic Map Works/Getty Images

In June 1606, King James I of England granted the Virginia Company a charter allowing them to create a settlement in North America. The group of 105 settlers and 39 crew members set sail in December 1606 and settled Jamestown on May 14, 1607. The main goals of the group were to settle Virginia, send gold back home to England, and try and find another route to Asia.​

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The Susan Constant, the Discovery, and Godspeed

The three ships that the settlers took to Jamestown were the Susan Constant, Discovery, and Godspeed. You can see replicas of these ships at Jamestown today. Many visitors are shocked at how small these ships actually were. The Susan Constant was the largest of the three ships, and its deck measured 82 feet. It carried 71 people aboard. It returned to England and became a merchant ship. The Godspeed was the second largest. Its deck measured 65 feet. It carried 52 people to Virginia. It also returned to England and made a number of round trip passages between England and the New World. The Discovery was the smallest of the three ships with its deck measuring 50 feet. There were 21 individuals aboard the ship during the voyage. It was left to the colonists and used to attempt to find the Northwest Passage. It was on this ship that Henry Hudson's crew mutinied, sent him off the ship on a small boat, and returned to England.​

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Relations With the Natives: On Again, Off Again

The settlers in Jamestown were initially met with suspicion and fear from the Powhatan Confederacy led by Powhatan. Frequent skirmishes between the settlers and the Native Americans occurred. However, these same Indians would provide them with the aid they needed to get through the winter of 1607. Only 38 individuals survived that first year. In 1608, a fire destroyed their fort, storehouse, church, and some dwellings. Further, a drought destroyed the crops that year. In 1610, starvation again occurred when the settlers did not store enough food and only 60 settlers were left in June 1610 when Lieutenant Governor Thomas Gates arrived.

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Survival at Jamestown and the Arrival of John Rolfe

The survival of Jamestown remained in question for over ten years as the settlers were not willing to work together and plant crops. Every winter brought tough times, despite efforts of such organizers as Captain John Smith. In 1612, the Powhatan Indians and the English settlers were becoming more hostile to each other. Eight Englishmen had been captured. In retaliation, Captain Samuel Argall captured Pocahontas. It was during this time that Pocahontas met and married John Rolfe who is credited with planting and selling the first tobacco crop in America. It was at this point with the introduction of tobacco that life improved. In 1614, John Rolfe married Pocahontas who coincidentally had helped the colonists survive their first winter at Jamestown.​

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Jamestown's House of Burgesses

Jamestown had a House of Burgesses established in 1619 that ruled the colony. This was the first legislative assembly in the American colonies. The Burgesses were elected by white men who held property in the colony. With the conversion to the royal colony in 1624, all laws passed by the House of Burgesses had to go through the king's agents.

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Jamestown's Charter Was Revoked

Jamestown had an extremely high mortality rate. This was due to disease, gross mismanagement, and later Native American raids. In fact, King James I revoked the London Company's charter for Jamestown in 1624 when only 1,200 settlers out of the total of 6,000 that had arrived from England since 1607 had survived. At that point, Virginia became a royal colony. The King attempted to dissolve the legislative House of Burgesses to no avail.

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The Legacy of Jamestown

Unlike the Puritans, who would seek religious freedom in Plymouth, Massachusetts 13 years later, the settlers of Jamestown came to make a profit. Through its highly profitable sales of John Rolfe’s sweet tobacco, the Jamestown Colony laid the foundation for the uniquely-American ideal of an economy based on free enterprise.

The rights of individuals to own property also took root Jamestown in Jamestown in 1618, when the Virginia Company granted the colonists the right to own land previously held solely by the Company. The right to acquire additional land allowed for economic and social growth.

In addition, the creation of the elected Jamestown House of Burgesses in 1619 was an early step toward the American system of representative government that has inspired the people of so many other nations to seek the freedoms offered by democracy.

Finally, aside from the political and economic legacies of Jamestown, the essential interaction between the English colonists, the Powhatan Indians, and Africans, both free and enslaved, paved the way for an American society based and dependant on a diversity of cultures, beliefs, and traditions.

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Kelly, Martin. "Facts About the Jamestown Colony." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/jamestown-facts-104979. Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). Facts About the Jamestown Colony. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/jamestown-facts-104979 Kelly, Martin. "Facts About the Jamestown Colony." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/jamestown-facts-104979 (accessed June 1, 2023).